A film review by Craig J. Koban

HELLBOY jj

2004, PG-13, 132 mins.

Hellboy: Ron Perlman / Liz Sherman: Selma Blair / Prof. Bruttenholm: John Hurt / Tom Manning: Jeffrey Tambor / John Meyers: Rupert Evans / Grigori Rasputin: Karel Roden / Agent Clay: Corey Johnson / "Abe" Sapien: Doug Jones / Ilsa: Bridget Hodson

Directed by Guillermo del Toro /  Written by del Toro and Peter Briggs, based on comic books by Mike Mignola

You know, there have been many things that I have pondered while laying awake in bed on those slow amnesia-induced nights, and one of them is this proposition: 

If there was a devil and he came in the guise of a seven foot man, what would he do with those semi-obligatorical horns on his head? 

Not only that, but what kind of a love life would he have?  What would his eating habits be?  Would the devil be a dog lover or a cat lover? Since he’s made up conveniently of fire, would he smoke cigarettes or cigars?

The new superhero film HELLBOY, rest assured, answers all of those troubling questions and more.  I feel I can now lie down for a peaceful and blissful night’s rest.  HELLBOY is clearly one of the weirdest and most offbeat comic book superhero films I have ever seen.  Its peculiarity comes primarily from the fact that its hero does not come prepackaged in blue spandex with a red cape, nor does he have a secret identity.  As a matter of fact, he has red skin, likes to smoke cigars, eats ten platters of food for every meal, saws down his horns to “fit in”, and lives in secret FBI headquarters. 

Oh…and he is a devil…literally, and also likes cats, kittens to be more precise. 

If you think that this film is just slightly preposterous, then it will take a huge leap of faith, dear reader, to accept the plot of this film.  It opens in World Wars II (funny, so did X-Men?) during a secret Nazi rally (I mean, has there ever been more politically correct villains than the Nazis?).  The Nazis, you see, have opened up a dark and deep portal to…well…a dark side dimension (the film does not clearly define this said dimension) and attempt to summon the Gods of Chaos…or whatever they are called.  The Nazis fail in their scheme by (get this) President Roosevelt’s psychic advisor - Professor Bruttenholm and the US army.   

The only casualty is that of that infamous psychic practionioner Rasputin as he gets sucked through the portal and disappears (or does he?). Thankfully, nothing else is released from the portal except one thing - a baby that curiously looks like a little red devil.  Of course, the professor feeds the creature a treat that I am sure every interdimensional devil explorer loves - Baby Ruth bars.  Thus, a small friendship is forged and the professor “adopts” the devil baby and names him HELLBOY, in a moment where I can’t tell if the film is playing it for laughs or trying to be straight.    

Well, Hellboy grows up to be a fairly normally adjusted adult devil (he’s aged nearly 70 years, but the film curiously explains that he has mentality of a 25 year old man).  You’d figure that he’d change his name to HELLMAN when he grew up so he would not be ostracized by his peers, but oh well.  The professor has aged and is played well by the great John Hurt.  He apparently has raised Hellboy in a veil of modesty in a secret FBI base thousands of feet below the surface with other freaks of nature, such as a man fish creature named Abe Sapien.  Hellboy’s needs are small.  Usually he feels at peace with a barbell set, a good cigar, and lots of kittens around him.  He is, unfortunately, a recluse whom is forced to live in hiding, at least until the forces of darkness are unleashed into the world and then…damn them anyway…the government demands his help. 

Meanwhile, two Nazi stiffs, for some reason or another (the film does not concretely explain) have not aged a day, resurrect Rasputin to…well…rule the earth or something.  They unleash those ever-resourceful creatures made of slime, teeth, and tentacles that seem completely unbeatable.  If only there was a seven foot devil to beat them into fiery submission? 

HELLBOY clearly is not aimed at the Superman or Batman crowd, nor is it a neatly packaged piece of easily accessible comic book entertainment.  It’s directed with a good eye for visual detail by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (BLADE 2).  He has clearly taken great pains to faithfully recreate the strange world of HELLBOY from its comic book origins.  Much of the visuals seem ripped right out of the panels that comic book creator Mike Mignola envisioned in two dimensions.  Del Toro clearly knows how to visually recreate the world of the comic books.  HELLBOY is an absolute triumph of art direction, costumes, makeup, and special visual effects.  The film also benefits from a wry and sardonic performance by Ron Pearlman as the title character, who plays the role in a balancing act of tough guy ruggedness and funny, sensitive, camp appeal. 

Yet, beyond that, there is nothing much more to speak in admiration about the film.  It’s largely very slow moving and lethargically paced and, at 135 minutes, it’s about 20 minutes too long for its own good.  A lot of the action scenes, although expertly handled, seem redundant over time and tend to drag on endlessly.   Selma Blair shows up as another “paranormal” that can starts fire only when hit or when it’s that time of the month (I guess).  Her character is a strange love interest and is severely underdeveloped (but hey, HELLBOY is clearly made for a woman who can make fires, eh?). 

The film also lacks any real tension for its characters.  After a few fights it's slowly revealed that HELLBOY really is fairly indestructible and can’t truly be killed or defeated.  He seems to laugh and joke his way through the most toughest of battles.  The film does not really reveal any vulnerability so how can we feel any real sense of danger?  C’mon, even that nearly unbeatable God-like superhero from another planet had kryptonite to keep him at bay? 

The film also suffers severely from an inconsistent tone.  I am not really altogether sure if the film is a comedy, an action film, a tender and sensitive story of loneliness, or a glossy horror film.  I think Ron Pearlman plays it just right for laughs, but every other character in the film plays the film up for a level of seriousness that the premise, frankly, does not allow.  The are many moments where it’s difficult to determine if the film is being intentionally or unintentionally funny.  I think that if they stuck to a base level of silliness and goofiness, it would have made for a much more fun ride.  I also found it really difficult to truly care for anything that happened in the film and, narratively, the film just parades around from one CGI invested action scene to the next. 

I do not profess to know very much about the HELLBOY universe, as I am sure it is explored in great detail in the original Dark Horse comics.  I’ll give it points for daring to be a bit audacious and try to tell a more different and offbeat comic book story.  The film is wonderful to look at, but difficult to sit through and enjoy.  It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best film about an interdimensional devil that works for the FBI government and fights the Nazis and forces of darkness that I have ever seen.  I guess to the agnostic comic book fan, this will be a strange and unusually ride for you.   It's funny, for all of Hellboy’s complaining about his appearance and shaving of his horns everyday, did any sane person think to utter two simple and practical words to him: plastic surgeon?

  H O M E